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Physician's Life a Reminder that Medicine Can Be Noble

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, January 3, 2011

There will be more questions about conflict of interest for physicians who take money from drug makers or medical device companies. There will be turf wars between rival hospitals and healthcare systems.  There will be more strikes, or threats to strike. Unions and management will try to discredit one another in the media. And, rival unions will try to discredit one another.

With our attention so focused on these divisive issues, it's easy to forget that healthcare is supposed to be about the noble science healing. So, before the mud starts flying, let's take a moment to remember the example of David Nichols, MD, who died Thursday after a months-long battle with liver cancer. He was 62.

Most regular readers know about Doc Nichols, who in December was named one of HealthLeaders Media's 20 People Who Make Medicine Better2010. A primary care physician, Nichols for more than three decades served as the only healthcare provider for about 525 people on remote Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay. Once a week for 31 years Nichols would fly himself out to the island from his coastal Virginia home. He didn't have to. He could undoubtedly have found other far less inconvenient ways to make money. In fact, Nichols told HealthLeaders Media that his White Stone Family Practice in Hampton Roads, VA helped to subsidize much of the unreimbursed or low-cost care he provided on the island, which is inhabited by fishing families.

Nichols chose to make those predawn flights ever year for half of his life because he saw a need. He put the welfare of his patients above all else. He saw himself as a dying breed, a self-described "Dinosaur Doc," but he didn't resent what he saw as a different set of priorities for younger physicians.

"Giving up too much time for others; that's how it was in those days. It was the norm for medicine," he says. "I can understand why today younger doctors don't want to work the long hours; they want to go home to their families."

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